spell-check

[ spel-chek ]
/ ˈspɛlˌtʃɛk /

verb (used with object)

to process (a document) with a spell checker; check the spelling of.

noun Also spell check.

a check for misspellings by using a spell checker.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

VOCAB BUILDER

What does spell-check mean?

Spell-check is computer software that identifies and corrects spelling errors in digital documents and messages. It’s also a noun and verb for the act of checking for misspellings.

Where does spell-check come from?

Back in the day, when phones had cords and tweeting was something that only birds did, people who were unsure of a word’s spelling had to go find a physical dictionary and look it up.

Then we invented computers and started to use word-processing programs instead of typewriters. In the early 1960s, well before the age of home computing, Lester Earnest was a grad student at MIT working on a program that could read handwriting. Being a poor speller himself, he got the idea to make a program that could detect misspelled words. And so, the first spell-check was born. At Stanford University in the 1970s, Earnest directed a grad student, Ralph Gorin, to build a more robust version, called SPELL, that suggested possible correct spellings. 

Spell-check went mainstream as personal computers spread in 1983, when it was included in WordPerfect and, shortly thereafter, Microsoft Word, the same year spell-check as both a noun and verb took off. Although Earnest called his creation a spelling checker or spelling corrector, he later said that spell-check sounded “like something that Harry Potter and his colleagues should be using.”

Grammar-check came along just a few years after spell-check, although with far less popularity or success at catching actual errors—although the technology has vastly improved. AutoCorrect, pioneered by Microsoft’s Dean Hachamovitch and first released with Word 6.0 in 1993, has become indispensable in the smartphone age, sometimes with “ducking” hilarious results. Indeed, there’s an entire website dedicated to sharing gut-busting and cringeworthy instances of AutoCorrect gone wrong.

While some welcome the red, squiggly underline of doom that most spell-checkers use to warn us of errors, others complain about its shortcomings. These include some inability to detect incorrect homonyms and replacement of words, misspelled or not, with different and inappropriate words, especially sweary ones. This has been called the Cupertino effect for a glitch that caused cooperation to be switched to Cupertino, in reference to the California city that is home to Apple.

How is spell-check used in real life?

Pretty much anyone who uses a computer, tablet, or smartphone uses spell-check unless they turn the functionality off. Give it a go—it can be liberating sometimes!

Spell-check has become such a part of modern, digital life that it’s a subject of popular conversation. The self-appointed grammar police may reference using spell-check when calling out misspellings. Countering them are the editors and copyeditors, reminding us when #spellcheck can’t save us from the trap of homonymy. Uniting us all, though, are all the times spell-check and AutoCorrect fail us, letting slip through its algorithm the wrong word.

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

Example sentences from the Web for spell-check